Trevor Rabin on Scoring Armageddon

An Interview with Trevor Rabin by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.68, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Whether it’s the glorious patriotic anthem of ARMAGEDDON or the intensely dark intrigue of ENEMY OF THE STATE, composer Trevor Rabin’s film music graces some of the biggest action/suspense blockbuster films being released today. After hooking up with producer Jerry Bruckheimer in CON AIR, he’s gone on to work with directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott, both major talents in their own field. Besides scoring high profile Bruckheimer films like CON AIR (with Mark Mancina), ARMAGEDDON, and ENEMY OF THE STATE (with Harry Gregson Williams), this composer is currently stretching his talents out in completely different directions. From his recent score to the family Christmas film, JACK FROST, to his upcoming elephant film WHISPERS, you couldn’t find two films more different from what he’s scored before. His past film projects also include Steven Segal’s GLIMMER MAN and HOMEGROWN, but his future opens a pathway that will lead him far away from his current style of film scoring.

What do you think film music is?
It really is a great opportunity for a modern day composer to write all kinds of different music without the restrictions, shackles, and criteria of, “It’s twenty seconds in and you’ve got to hit the chorus.” The things you have to do for hit singles don’t come into play here.
I knew I could bring to this the sensibility of what a hit song is, because when scores sound good they are great. Hit records are all about things that sound good and are appealing. I want my scores to be appealing more than anything else, to draw people in and be emotional. I’ve always been a melody kind of guy, so I just thought I could bring something to film music. I was getting very bored with a lot of the action scores that were coming out; I thought they all sounded the same. I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to go in with this purist view of, “Well, I really want to do my thing and do something different for the action stuff,” because I’ve done mostly action scores. It’s hard to change it, but I just had a feeling there was a factory mentality about the sound of action scores.

Who’s been instrumental in helping you get into scoring the major films you’ve done?
When I did CON AIR, I managed to develop a really good relationship with Jerry Bruckheimer. He pushes real hard because he knows what he wants. He’s been great. After CON AIR, people called Jerry and he recommended me for other films as well, so he’s been very helpful. Kathy Nelson and Bill Greene from Disney have both been incredible, kind, and supportive, as has Doug Frank and Gary Lemel from Warner Brothers. Really, those four people along with Jerry have been instrumental in helping me get into this.

How did you get involved in scoring CON AIR with Mark Mancina?
We toured together in a band for a while. I was working with Trevor Horn on Seal at one point, and introduced Mark to Trevor Horn. They did some work together, then Trevor Horn and Hans Zimmer were doing DAYS OF THUNDER and they needed some guitar. I actually played on some tracks for DAYS OF THUNDER. Then Trevor introduced Mark to Hans and the rest was history. He went and joined up with Hans and was off on his own. Later on I left ‘Yes’ and decided I wanted to do movie music. I had a tape that I sent to Jerry Bruckheimer after I did GLIMMER MAN. Between Disney and Jerry there was the thought of me doing CON AIR, but I was pretty much a dark horse, a new guy. Mark called me and said, “I know your name’s been mentioned there, but they’ve offered me this movie. How about we do it together because it’s going to be this long haul?” We decided to do it together and had a great time. Unfortunately it didn’t last too long because Mark had to go off to do SPEED 2, so for the majority of the score I was left alone to do it.

How were you hired to do ARMAGEDDON?
I had the relationship with Jerry Bruckheimer from CON AIR, and later I scored the theme to the television series SOLDIER OF FORTUNE for him. When ARMAGEDDON came up, I was recommended to Jerry by Kathy Nelson and Bill Green of Disney, as well as Bob Badamy the music editor. I met with the director, Michael Bay, and wrote something for him based solely on the script. They liked what I wrote, but wanted me to see some of the film. After I saw some intense footage of the film I came back to my studio and wrote something that turned out to be Main Theme. They loved it.

What were the logistics of scoring ARMAGEDDON?
The whole score lasted about two hours. It took me about three months working on it. We recorded the score at Sony with about a 100-piece orchestra and 50-voice choir, and that took around eighteen days at the most. One of the more difficult things in scoring ARMAGEDDON was instead of getting up and coming down to my studio; I had to drive at 4:30 in the morning to the Westside to be near Jerry Bruckheimer!

How did you feel about your score here?
I’m never happy with anything I do, but I’m not going to say it sucks. Also I don’t want to sound like Mr. Humble because I listen to other people’s scores and think “that sucks.” There’s a couple of things on there that I’m really happy with. Then there are moments I think, “You know what? I think I could’ve done better here or there. I’m really happy this has been obscured by sound effects because the score could have been better there.” So I’m always very critical of myself. The day I stop trying to improve and think I’ve got it right, I must stop because then I’m tired.

Weren’t the expectations on a high profile film like ARMAGEDDON a heavy load to carry?
No, because Jerry’s been speaking to me about ENEMY OF THE STATE recently. I’m also to a Christmas movie like FROST, which is a really fun, feel-good movie to be doing. I don’t feel the need to go from one blockbuster to another. I think if you do, you become one dimensional. You become known for just doing the one thing, and you’ll never get to do the Quirky stuff like SLING BLADE. I want to explore different areas. I got into the movies because I want to go into different areas.

Did you learn anything by scoring a fast moving, super charged action film like this?
I’m learning all the time. The more I do, the more I learn. I’d gone through it with CON AIR and to a lesser extent GLIMMER MAN. I’d done bits and pieces, about a third of the score or maybe less, of FAIR GAME. Mark was doing it and I helped him out with that, and I was just learning from doing it. I definitely learned that you don’t always need to have a fast running piece of music to ride an action scene. Sometimes it’s more menacing to hold back and have a slow melody that builds and builds, which goes contrary to what the scene is doing. Sometimes it helps the scene. I always try to look at doing something that’s not going to be the obvious. The obvious thing is to get the staccato strings going; it’s been done thousands of times. I’ve certainly gone there, but I always try and look for some alternative way of doing things.

Were you aware of the sound effects in ARMAGEDDON?
Yeah, I was aware, but not as aware of when I went down to the dub stage and realized to what extent they were going to be utilized. I scored to sound effects in the right places, but they were being changed all the time and being reintroduced. It’s pretty self-evident that when something crashes there’s going to be a sound effect there, so I would take it into consideration. There were times where I had no idea the sound effects were going to be utilized to the extent they were. In fairness, the sound effects were excellent when the spaceship crashes on the asteroid. The music that was there, you might as well let it go. It was underneath.
Actually this all made me think I was back on stage in the band with explosions and pyrotechnics. Every now and then I would look when I went to the premiere and say, “Maybe we should have pulled back here or played this a little differently to really let the effects through, rather than try to accentuate and help.” They didn’t need any help. It’s a hard one, because on a movie driven by special effects it’s sometimes hard to design absolutely accurately what the music should be. There’s always the option they can pull the music down, but it’s so much nicer if you can just leave it there and it works.

How did your theme to ARMAGEDDON end up on the song compilation CD?
I didn’t even ask to put that on there. Kathy Nelson phoned me and said, “We need a piece of score for the CD, it will artistically suit the album.” I said, “Great, I’ll do that.” Unfortunately that piece on the album is all electronic. There’s no orchestra on there because by the time that had to be delivered, we hadn’t done anything with the orchestra. That’s purely an electronic piece. The release of the all score CD is totally acoustic.

Knowing that the re-use fees will be phenomenal for ARMAGEDDON, why go ahead and release the score CD?
I’ve submitted an hour’s worth of music for this. It’s not necessary to have an hour, but it is an hour. There are a lot of cues with dobro or guitars and keyboards. This all started where the union started getting rightly concerned about the fact that there’s a lot of people who are out there, year after year, studying their instrument and then getting money to do the sampling sessions, but not getting booked for six months. Why aren’t they getting booked? Because people are playing it on the keyboards. There’s a reality to it and I guess it’s one-way that it has to be approached.
My feeling of contentment comes from the writing of the music, then playing it back and watching it. I can hear and see it then, but a week later I’m looking at it from a work standpoint. I did not have the need to release an album, I didn’t fight for it. The record company wanted to put this out, they were really excited about it. What better motivation for you to want to put something out if the people behind the actual working of the record are into it?

Did you approach putting together the CD differently here?
Absolutely. I put it together as a record. In fact the first cue on it is ‘The Launch’. If you look at when the launch comes, sequentially it’s pretty late in the movie, but on the score album it’s first because it’s almost like a suite, the way it speaks. It encompasses all things. Paul Linford helped me sequence the album. He has a great feel for it and he’s a writer himself. My music editor on CON AIR, Will Kaplan, put together the CON AIR album.

How did you get the opportunity to score ENEMY OF THE STATE?
There was another composer who was supposed to do it but that fell through. Jerry Bruckheimer knew I was doing another movie, so I couldn’t do it anyway. It turned out that my schedule worked out and I could score this, working 28 hours a day. It was a great opportunity working with Tony Scott and actors like Will Smith and Gene Hackman.

What approach did you take when scoring ENEMY OF THE STATE?
I approached it like those old espionage movies that have a lot of intrigue in them. The thing that I knew was needed for this movie was to be a little more transparent so you could ride the picture a little more or not be in the way at all, as opposed to ARMAGEDDON which was a big-sounding score.

What did they temp ENEMY with?
I don’t really remember what it was. I think there were tracks from CON AIR, THE FAN, and bits and pieces from all over the place. There’s some James Newton Howard music in there. I really try and take as little notice of the temp as possible. I think it’s a terrible thing that’s happened, these temp scores.

Didn’t the director want you to sound like the temp?
The great thing about Tony is he said to me, “All right, there’s a temp here. You’ve got to make sure it’s better than the temp.” So, he allowed total exploration and let me to go elsewhere. The first things I played him that he liked set the palette much more than the temp did. There were times where he said, “I really like all the emotion that this is bringing to it,” which makes it harder, because you want to stay with the emotion of what it’s doing without copying it.

Explain the logistics of the score to me. How long did it take you to write ENEMY?
The important thing is that in the first couple of days, when I was thinking about it and I came up with a kind of palette, which was enjoyed a lot by Jerry and Tony, it made everything else easier. It took me about four or five weeks to write ENEMY. We were on the scoring stage for about a week using 70 players. Gordon Goodwin and Bruce Fowler orchestrated the score, while Gordon also conducted it.

Why did you score this particular film with composer Harry Gregson-Williams?
I was on another movie, so in order for me to do this, I needed to be able to make sure that I had the ability to work with people on it. Harry was available and wanted to do it. I’d worked with him before and I liked that. So, it was acceptable to the studio. Also Tim Hines was the other guy I worked with on it.

Do you think having to score with another composer limits the creative output of what you’re doing?
If it’s done carefully and things are delegated properly, it can be very good. Harry’s used to doing that with Zimmer and working with other people, so he’s a really good team player. We worked together on ARMAGEDDON as well.

You don’t find two composers writing scores together very often in this industry.
I think with Bruckheimer, it’s kind of a usual thing. If you look at CRIMSON TIDE, there were tons of people on that. Likewise on THE ROCK and BAD BOYS. It seems like Jerry’s movies generally have a lot of people on them. In fact, I think the only one where there wasn’t a team from what I know was CON AIR, where it started with Mark and I and then it ended up me doing it just because Mark had to go off to SPEED 2.

When you’re working with director Tony Scott, how do you communicate to get the right feel for the film?
The initial meeting made the difference. I went there and played some cues and on two of them Tony actually said, “That’s the voice of the film.” That gave me my direction. “He likes that. This is where he wants to go.” He didn’t like the third cue. He said, “No. It isn’t right.” So we stayed away from that one. It gives you an idea of where he wants to go with it, but then beyond that, once you’ve done cues, he’ll come in and listen and go through them with you. Really go through them to the point of instrumentation saying, “It’s a little busy, it’s playing the scene too hard.” So, he’s very specific about what he does and what he doesn’t want. He’ll do this through the whole scoring process.

Did you create something uniquely psychological here?
I knew that the function of the music had to be to as economically as possible, keep people on the edge of their seats which Tony successfully does. Also, the music is definitely darker than anything I’ve done before.

It seems as if Tony Scott likes to direct his films to create a lot of tension.
The nice thing working with Tony Scott is that he often likes the music to contrast what’s happening with the picture. You’ll have written a cue which you think is really good and rides the film properly and he’ll say, “You know what? That’s exactly right, but I’d really like to go against the film on this and contrast it.”

In all the films you’ve done so far, which director do you think you’ve worked the closest with?
Probably ENEMY OF THE STATE, although with JACK FROST the director, Troy Miller, was very involved in how the emotions should be played. He was a very, very exciting director to work with.

Does scoring films like ARMAGEDDON or ENEMY OF THE STATE take more out of you emotionally than scoring a picture like JACK FROST?
Working on these films is more labor intensive that something like JACK FROST. A film like FROST is so different, I really enjoyed scoring it. It took me some place I’d never been before, scoring a Christmas film. When I started writing for that film, the emotional feeling was very different from the direction I was going. It was a great departure for me; I’m very passionate about my score for FROST.

What are your future plans?
I’m just about to start doing WHISPERS, which is once again a departure. It’s a movie about elephants and a very different kind of way of writing I would think. I haven’t really started, but I’ve got a lot of ideas and know exactly what I’d like to with it. I always try and write a theme to get an idea, and if the director likes it, then it makes a big difference on how I proceed. Once that’s done, then I’m doing this movie DEEP BLUE SEA. Beyond that, hopefully, is a holiday.

© Rudy Koppl 1998/2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.